Onwards to Chengdu. There’s really only one main attraction here, and that attraction is a black and white herbivore.
The panda branding began from the moment of our arrival as we were staying at Mrs. Panda hostel, adorned throughout with the critters as well as cuddly ones dotted around. This place is a big stopping-off place on the road to Tibet, and as such the hostel had a very ‘independent’ feel. They organise the tours and permits there too. Not for this trip…
We took the hostel’s tour option to get to the research base in the morning, it seemed like a sensible choice rather than the two local buses that we would never find. I was really excited about this trip, Sarah slightly less so however once we got to the first enclosure I think I was not the only rabid panda fan on site. Possibly the only one tugging sleeves and excitedly exclaiming about them though.
The site of the research station is huge, with numerous different large enclosures, breeding stations and educational areas. The thing that first struck me was how close they were to us. I think Sarah became more than concerned when I commented on how climbable the low enclosure fence seemed. People who know me know how much I struggle with cute, fluffy creatures.
As luck would have it, we managed to coincide our visit with there being a lot of panda cubs in the nursery enclosure… viewing is strictly time limited with a queue to pass the window and a guard inside to ensure that lovestruck punters continue through slowly- But there’s nothing to prevent you from seeing them a number of times. We did. Look at THESE:
Naturally, the park contained all sorts of panda merchandise and memorabilia, and the less cute, but by no means ugly, red pandas:
I should probably return to credible travel blogging now. Aside from the all-encompassing panda-mania I found Chengdu to be a really liveable, pleasant city with, it seemed like, a decent nightlife and restaurant scene. As we were only staying there a couple of nights we didn’t manage to explore fully, but it’s definitely someone to return to.
The next day we had a fairly long time to kill before the evening flight back to Beijing, so decided to see the big Buddha in Leshan, around 2 hours away on the bus. I met a German lady at reception who was intending to do the same journey as me, however the conversation rather slipped away once she announced that she had to go via train, despite me pointing out that the bus station was literally next-door and with apparently very frequent buses- As opposed to the train station which was a good half an hour away via foot/metro. Some people just need a timetable, it seems. Very INSISTENT about the TRAIN. Bless. I did try.
The bus turned out to be very easy, with a local bus to the Buddha itself even easier, it’s completely un-necessary to do an organised tour to this place. The Buddha statue is undeniably huge, however overall it felt like a bit of a one-trick pony place. To view the Buddha from the bottom required a painful Chinese queuing/pushing experience along a narrow cliff path. Worth it though, to witness the scale from below… Impressively this was carved 1200 years ago and intended to calm the stormy confluence of 3 rivers there. This it did, however opinions differ on whether it was the influence of the Buddha or the thousands of tons of waste rock cast into the river…
Contrary, to previous trips, by the time we left the Big Buddha we still had ages to get back to Chengdu, so “we” decided to check out a crispy duck emporium raved about in Lonely Planet. Sarah the veggie was delighted at this development, and skulked off to find suitable sustenance whilst I engaged with the duckmaster, selecting a suitably large chunk for lunch, which was swiftly shredded into small pieces within a reassuringly weighty bag. My sign language requests for chopsticks fell initially on deaf ears however once they realised I was intending to gorge on the ducky goodness in the street the owner’s son ran over with some disposable plastic gloves. Ideal! Probably the best, least greasy crispy duck I’ve ever tasted and less than 3 quid for a humungous bag.
And so, another whistle-stop tour came to an end. Back to Beijing, to see the Great Wall and for me to hop off to Pyongyang…
There’s not much I can say about the Great Wall that hasn’t been said. Visible from space etc… However we had opted to do an overnight camping tour on a less touristy section at the recommendation of Vicky whom we met in Russia. This turned out to be a great option, although in the first few minutes of meeting our guide it didn’t seem so.
The arrangement was to meet at a metro station exit on the east of Beijing. Unfortunately with the National Day crowds everywhere we ended up queuing for 15 minutes just to get into the metro, so ended up being about 15 minutes late, then with no sign of the party. We rang the guide and were treated to a lengthy rant because they had just left. They came back, and there was then another lengthy rant from the guide and a request to pay the other guests a ‘fine’ for our lateness.
Once this had been agreed and we climbed into the van there began another rant. At which point I was very, very close to telling her where to stick her tour, since we hadn’t paid anything by now. However, I realised we probably wouldn’t get a chance to do it otherwise so I (uncharacteristically) held my tongue.
After our bollockings though, it was fine. We drove an hour out of Beijing in the countryside and walked a partly restored section of the wall before dropping back to the village for a truly excellent lunch. After lunch we walked a short section the other way, returning again to the village. I think there’s a bit of a misconception about the wall being intact and walkable for long distances- Unfortunately only short sections are navigable so you can’t go too far. The sections we did see were ace though:
After then we made our way to a nearby watchtower to camp for the night. Our guide was incredibly twitchy about the weather conditions and with good reason- Lots of the wall, such as the section in the picture above, is really steep. Some of the steep sections have steps but others are just flagstones, which are pretty lethal to climb in the dry, let alone in the wet with packs full of gear.
For this reason, since rain was expected, we camped in one of the better restored watch-houses with a roof, but not much else. We set up the tents inside and enjoyed a scenic buffet:
It was lucky we got the scenic picture taking out of the way early on, because we wouldn’t have been able to stand in this spot in the morning- As luck would have it the rain held off however in its place we were subjected to a night and then morning of howling, gusting wind, the strongest I think I’ve ever experienced save for the summit of Pen-Y-Fan on a shit day. Quite concerning when you’re in a tent in the middle of it. The watchtowers are basically open to the elements, and it’s a minor miracle that the tents held up- As we found out in the morning, if we weren’t in them, they would have blown away!
Luckily the guide knew a path which left the wall, because we would have definitely been blown off if we’d tried walking down the wall itself! Back to the village for a bit of breakfast then back, like little boomerangs, to Beijing so I could get off to North Korea and Sarah could get her South Korean visa… Maybe!